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Monday
Oct072013

Twenty years on

It was twenty years ago this month that I left the bike business. I can’t remember the exact date in October 1993, but I do remember it was October. I had not planned to retire, and I could have gone on for many more years, but I was forced out of business (Strange as it may seem now.) by the mountain bike.

I had a good run through the 1980s, at the height of my production I had as many as six employees, and together we produced 25 frames a month. The employees prepared and fed me materials so I could concentrate on brazing the frames together. My employees also did most of the finish work and I employed a full time painter.

As long as I could sell 20 or 25 frames a month I had a very lucrative little business. But by the late 1980s, early 1990s the mountain bike was becoming more and more popular and as a result sales of road frames were dropping rapidly.

At first there were separate road bike enthusiasts, and mountain bike enthusiasts, and there were separate mountain bike builders catering for the MTB crowd. Over the years these mountain bike builders had each built up a following, which made it tough for someone like me to suddenly switch and break into that market. I did produce a mountain bike, (Picture above.) but honestly I hated it, and my heart was not in it.

I had spent a great deal of time and money attending the Interbike Show every year, and as a result I had built up a nationwide network of bicycle dealers. When these dealers switched from selling road bikes to mountain bikes I felt betrayed, like someone whose spouse had left for a new love. In hindsight I realize that bike store owners had to do whatever they needed to do to stay in business. It was nothing personal.

I was not the only one effected by the road bike slump. There was a company in Florida named “Ten Speed Drive Imports” that had imported Italian bikes, frames and equipment since the 1970s. A good friend of mine was a sales rep for Ten Speed Drive in Colorado. He told me by 1993 he would walk into bike stores that had previously been regular customers for many years, they told him, “Don’t even open your order book, we are not selling road bikes anymore.” Ten Speed Drive went belly up, about the same time I left the business.

Had the Internet been in place as it is today, I may have survived as a one man business, selling direct to the few hard core road bike enthusiasts that remained. But that wasn’t the case. By early 1993 things were so bad, I was down to two employees, Russ Denny, who had been my apprentice since 1985, and another young guy who was my painter.

When I did my taxes in April 1993 my accountant told me, “I have some good news, and some bad news. The good news is, you didn’t make enough in 1992 to pay taxes, the bad news is, last year your employees made more than you did.”

It was obvious that I could not continue in this way, I was ready to liquidate all the equipment and walk away. Russ begged me not to do that, and I felt somewhat obligated because he came to me aged 18, straight out of high school and now at 26 years, framebuilding was the only thing he knew. I allowed the two to stay on, unpaid, and they survived by doing freelance work.

By October 1993 I could no longer pay the rent and support myself. I was thoroughly burned out and hated the bike business and anything to do with bikes for that matter. I turned the whole operation over to Russ Denny. As a single young man, he was able to survive by giving up his apartment, and sleeping on a mattress in the frame shop. Which I’m sure was against all regulations.

I was not prepared to live at that level of poverty. I went on to take a job as a production manager with a company that manufactured bowling equipment, and I actually made some good money for a change.

Looking back, I have no regrets. I have a body of work out there that has survived longer than my California business.  As long as people are interested, I will continue to write here and maintain my bike registry. Above all I can enjoy riding a bike, something I could not do while I was engaged in the bicycle business.

Today I am a writer and songwriter. I make a small amount from freelance writing, and when people hear my music, some say, “Why don’t you go to Nashville and try to sell your songs?” To that I would answer. “No thank you.” The bicycle business drove me to hate the bicycle, for many years I did not own or ride one. I love my music and the people it brings me in touch with, I will not allow the music business to drive me to hate it.

 

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Reader Comments (14)

Hi Dave,
I remember seeing you and the Fuso ATB in Oceanside. Since I already had (and still have) a Fuso road bike I wanted one so bad. Never got one.
Thanks for your articles. Look forward to each post.
Bill K Fuso #12

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBill K

Wow, that is a sad story! I hope it helps you a tiny bit to know that I LOVE your blog, I eagerly await each installment of your hard-earned cycling wisdom, and having learned some of your backstory, I am very grateful that you have come to enough peace with the bicycling world to write about it again.

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRubeRad

You may hate it, but ... hey, that's a nice looking mountain bike!

Nice story of the great shift in cycling. We all saw it, but only a few, like you, from the inside out.

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTBD

Curious, as the market shifted (rapidly!) to mountain bikes, did you ever build a mountain bike frame or consider going with the market?

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTimJ

people are so willing to give advice, but it's always the same advice - as if you hadn't thought of it before. Then you are fored to trot out the reasoning behind your decision which is really trying after the 20th time. Maybe they expect to hear "wow! I never thought of that, do you really think so?" but that's equally trying. Oops I came close to giving advice, sorry.

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpeter

Peter,
Thanks for that because I thought I made it clear that I DID build a mountain bike, there is a picture at the top.

The history of the mountain bike is well documented and started around 1979, 1980 when a group of enthusiasts from Northern California started racing old cruiser bikes downhill, and the sport developed from that. It is like when someone is an “Overnight Success,” it is usually found that they have worked for years to become an overnight success.

I built my first mountain bike in 1985, so it was not like I could not see where the trend was going. But in 1985 I was still doing very well with the sale of road frames, so I had no real desire or incentive to push it.

The popularity of the MTB skyrocketed in the early 1990s when it caught the public’s imagination, and the big corporations saw the potential to make a lot of money. In the years that followed, the big corporations even pushed the small MTB builders out of business. Bike stores are now “Dealerships,” in the same way cars are sold. They are pressured to sell so much product each year or lose the dealership.

The reason I drew a comparison with the music business is because there is some great music out there. (And literature.) However, the general public will not find it unless they seek it out. Corporations peddle junk, junk food, junk entertainment, etc. etc.

There are two types of people who go into business, the person who loves what he/she is doing, the artisan, or craftsman. The other is the person who is in business simply to make a lot of money. (Not that there is anything wrong with that.)

For an artisan or craftsman to produce something they do not believe in just to make money or even survive, is to sell one’s soul to make a buck. The corporate asshole has no soul to begin with.
Dave

October 8, 2013 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

TBD is so right. That really is a very neat looking MTB, nothing like the farm machinery one sees these days. Most MTB 's I see are being used to ride to school or to the corner store to buy cigarettes. Dave's story reminds me of what rock-n-roll did to british jazz clubs.

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony C.

"The bicycle business drove me to hate the bicycle." As a pianist I discovered the same thing. I adored playing the piano until I began making a living doing it. After that it ceased to be a joy and became . . . a job. Never, ever make your hobby a job, it'll destroy it (and perhaps you, too).

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJames Thurber
October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTimeline

Dave- I think the industry made the road bike so specialized, and dropped the less specialized bikes so that the early mountain bikes looked like the reasonable bike to buy. The change to 49mm. brakes, and the elimination of eyelets, and the ultra short chain stays, and the ultra skinny clincher tires left one with a toy for perfect weather and perfect pavement.
I never owned a mountain bike, and never liked riding off pavement. I kept riding the bikes that I had, which did not help your business.
I still don't see bikes that I want when I go in a bike shop. The last frame I bought was a Jackson audax frame, even it is old now, but I ride it regularly.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdvenable

The bicycle is self propelled self empowerment with employment a option . In your case , you spread that around .For that and this blog , on behalf of the bike and fellow cyclists , thank you .

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterlee

Thanks for sharing the history of your company and how mountain biking played into the bike industry. Very interesting and my one goal of any bike ride is to make it better than the last because I never want to hate riding my bike! If you ever get interested in music I have a mutual friend!

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBill

I quit because baseball was sacred to me until I started getting paid for it. The more that “baseball” became synonymous with “business,” the less it meant to me,

The American dream didn’t tell me that an experience only matters if I acknowledge it, that losing yourself in the game is a good way to lose what makes life meaningful.

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/sportingscene/2013/10/why-i-quit-major-league-baseball.html

November 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJack

Nicely told. It's probably also worth noting the effects of the post-war baby boom, with the usage of bicycles becoming more recreational (was always so in the US) and the longevity of the product. (Don't tell my wife, but you really only need one bicycle :-)

The baby boom kids all needed bikes through to the 1970s but then demand dropped. By the time the MTB came along, many had their own kids and were also nostalgic for riding, and the MTB looked a lot more comfy than those wannabe-racer bikes, so they bought MTBs instead.

I see it happening again today in the UK - lots of ordinary people buying what are essentially road racing bikes with drop bars, 23mm tyres and 11/23 clusters, because that's "cool" and that's what folks in "bike shoppes" like. The smart ones are on flat-bar Ridgebacks.

Very astute the nod to internet sales. Anyone with a special or bespoke product and some marketing accumen now has a world-wide market to cater to. I'm amazed at how far afield small manufacturers can find profitable business these days - even for very bulky products.

September 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteveP

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